On Pluto – (MYoM – Part 3)

Three weeks from now there is going to be a solar eclipse -– a pretty good one too from the sounds of it (providing the weather cooperates) -– and it is going to happen smack dab in the middle of a school day morning. So what do we do in a school like mine in a situation like this? We do an Astronomy project with the plan of having the eclipse as our grand finale. Right now I am all caught up in the ““Is Pluto a planet?”” debate: should I teach “the kids

“My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas””  or

“”My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos””??

When I got up this morning, I had no idea that I would spend hours researching these and other new developments in Astronomy. But it is what I love about my new current workplace:– the freedom to improvise, to create teachable moments out of what is going on in the world around us at any given time, to adjust course midway through the year in order to make use of unforeseen opportunities that come our way. And I get to learn so much in the process too.

I especially appreciate this part of my job whenever I talk to fellow teachers in regular schools. Not only have all the negative trends from the States come here (“educational reform” which basically boils down to standardized curricula, standardized testing, teacher bashing, and finding more and more ways to save money), but they have been forced through the same funnel as the century old rite of passage called ““Matura”” – or graduation exams – creating a toxic brew called “”Central Matura””. For competent and dedicated teachers, drinking this brew fills them with a feeling of frustration. It is all drilling and teaching to the test now – no fun anymore – – at least that is what so many of them tell me. The less competent ones are filled with fear -– like a bunch of Chicken Littles running around yelling “”The Matura is coming! The Matura is coming!”” My daughter has a French teacher like this – – it is their first year of the language and the Matura is 6 years away, but this teacher is drawing thick red lines under every little mistake and passing out the “F’’s” like crazy. When asked if this is really necessary, she replied “”By the Matura, they will have to know all this!””

We have standards! Yeeaayy!

The word ““standard”” is truly a strange one. As a noun it is mostly positively perceived – – a standard is a proof of quality, something to aspire to and attain and maintain. As an adjective it is not so rosy –- it is standard, average, the norm, ordinary. It begs the question of whether our school system has the goal of producing kids with standards or standard kids.

Let’’s imagine a world with fewer “standards”. You have thousands and thousands of teachers, all with their areas of special interest and enthusiasm, free to be a little creative in their teaching, but generally holding to a commonsense list of what kids should master in school to help them in their later lives. You have tens of thousands of kids and each one is taking away something different -– even from the very same teacher -– because it is almost impossible to control what, exactly, each one learns from the materials taught. (And this is why tests only show us what kids haven’’t learned and never what they have.) The sheer collective dimensions of everything learned by these tens of thousands of kids is astronomical, unmeasurable.

But let’’s try to measure it anyway. From the universe of the learnable, we will pick out a tiny microcosm that can fit into three hours’ worth of multiple choice questions. We will send these out to the tens of thousands of kids at the same moment on the same day and see how much of it overlaps with the knowledge each individual one has gained in his/her school years. The best trained, most drilled, most standardized of the kids will have the easiest time of it. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Central Matura.

I have been so darn lucky in my career to have somehow sidestepped this entire system. During my years at the university, I was too small a fish to attract anyone’’s attention. The fact that no one was looking over my shoulder combined with the concept of “academic freedom” allowed me to teach according to my own ideas and personal “standards”. One of my first decisions was to get rid of final exams and replace them with a point system that allowed the students some freedom in deciding what they would learn and what grade they wanted to achieve. Overnight, the amount of work my students produced tripled. In the last few years of my career there, more and more changes and restrictions came and finally the whole thing dried up. But that is a story for another day.

Enter my little alternative schoolteacher career. Status-wise, a big step down and outward in this country’’s educational solar system. Metaphorically speaking, I’’m now on Pluto and the debate is still raging as to whether we are actually a real school/planet. And just like Pluto, we keep orbiting. Emitting our non-standard students for the society to try to measure and categorize. Refusing to be dwarfed.

“Nine Pizzas” it is.

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